November 6 , 2006
Passion, power and pink martinis
BY Sherry meltz, winship cancer institute volunteer
It was a very cold Tuesday in January when I discovered, during a breast self-examination, a lump in my right breast. Both my mother and father had died of lung cancer that had metastasized, disease likely born from smoking-related habits.
As an only child, their leaving left me feeling “orphaned” at the age of 42. But I had a commitment to preserving my own wellness habits, to scheduling regular preventative screenings and to observing proactive behaviors I thought would render me “safe.”
It was only after reading Lance Armstrong’s book, “It’s Not about the Bike,” however, that I understood the power of attitude and the critical significance of early detection. It was easy for me to sense his passion for life, his power of thought while on the road to full recovery, and his courage to “beat the worst of all odds” and thrive.
It was only two months after I read the book that I chose to establish my own survival action plan, and Lance had provided the outline.
Invasive ductal carcinoma of the right breast: average survival rate eight years, if detected early. I guessed the odds were that I would live to be 59.
That was, and is, not acceptable to me or my family. I have so much yet to do. What now?
In less than a week I had an exceptional, compassionate oncologist, William Wood. My lymph nodes were clean, and what followed was a lumpectomy and margin excision — surgery to remove the tumor and the tissue around it, ensuring that all the cancerous cells had been removed.
A call came two days later that my margins were not clean. A re-incision procedure was recommended to guarantee that abnormal cells were eliminated. Again, the margins were not clean.
It was time to move on to “plan B”, a radical bilateral mastectomy. It was also time to re-read the “bike” book Lance wrote before I knew I had cancer — cancer that now presented unrelenting complications to life as I knew it.
My surgery was successful, but my emotional recovery was raw. My new identity emerged as that of cancer survivor.
I never thought I would meet the hero who unknowingly held my hand and cradled my heart during many of my fragile moments.
Recently, much healed and more focused, I applied and was accepted to represent the Emory Winship Cancer Institute as one of three Winship delegates to the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s first summit in Austin, Texas.
My friends and fellow volunteers at Winship, Pat Lameshka and Julie Whitehead, cancer survivors with powerful stories of their own, also were named delegates. Our plane to Texas was chock full of survivors of every kind of cancer.
While en route, Delta employees celebrated Breast Cancer Awareness month by sharing with us heartfelt words and their own private experiences. Then they honored our “journey” with pink martinis. So far, this was proving to be my kind of summit!
At 3 p.m. on Oct. 27, in the Austin Convention Center, Lance Armstrong began to speak about “the power of one.” I was certain he was speaking directly to me, and I imagine everyone else felt exactly the same way.
Today, more than 10 million people are challenged with cancer, and more than 62 million acknowledge their own challenge or that of a loved one with the yellow “Livestrong” wrist bands. Cancer is an epidemic of monumental proportions.
We were assembled with a consummate warrior leading the way. In addition to Lance, Julie, Pat and I were in remarkable company: LaSalle Leffall Jr., chairman of the President’s Cancer Panel; Mike Milken, head of
FasterCures; Elizabeth Edwards, whose cancer was diagnosed the day before election day as her husband ran for vice president; Richard Nares, who lost his five-year-old son to leukemia and began a foundation providing transportation for families who otherwise could not access care; and the list went on.
But it was Senator John Kerry’s story of losing his father to prostate cancer, then himself being diagnosed soon thereafter on Christmas Eve 2002, that assaulted my soul. Senator Kerry felt safe enough to pause and weep as he shared a journey far too familiar to all of us in that room.
Yet those who stood and shared their stories with our delegation of 750 strong praised and acknowledged us as the heroes. They challenged us to accept the awesome task of creating an army, grounded in passion, that could transform health care as we know it today.
Each of us created an action plan for our community by sharing concerns, unmet needs and solutions, and coming up with tangible and doable tasks for our newly-created, very personal, “designated community armies.”
The last day of the summit was a highly emotional one. Re-entry into the real world — the one with traffic, political chaos and unmet needs — was again a reality.
We had been applauded, directed, coached and guided for three days. We had been positively enveloped in a setting filled with promise and solutions.
The closing song, written and performed by the group Wide Awake, had been written for the Livestrong contingent. I was reminded that “every day is extra,” and that my “army of one” is capable of changing the medical future for my children and their children.
Yet, as the summit closed, one resounding message played in my head and my heart — survivorship never felt so good.